Villages of concrete


While the taxpayer continues to foot the bill for big government, local economic development and grassroots representation remain elusive till this day. Millions of people in Pakistan depend on urban areas, whether we derive livelihoods, indulge in recreation or engage in other pursuits. Yet, we do so within a visibly degenerating environment characterized by corruption, poor accountability and diminishing access to opportunities for economic growth.

With over fifty per cent of our population living in clusters of over five thousand people, it is not difficult to see how urban areas truly are the engines of the economyalleviating poverty while powering the hinterland with markets for goods and services. For all the access to opportunities our cities can provide, it is a shame that they have not kept pace with the expanding population. Notwithstanding the dearth of energy, employment, public services and infrastructure, neither did our cities evolve to control the dramatic changes occurring in our middle and working classes, leading to wide disparities between winners and losers in society.

In a land where illegality presides and chaos is the order of the day, our vision of cities as places for undisrupted flows of socio-economic capital is subverted by the realities of urban life, and the obstacles we face on a daily basis. From road rage, road blocks and demolition drives to intrusive regulatory regimes, our very existence is punctuated and conditioned by our experiences in the urban environment.

It would be easy to romanticize our relationship with urban areas and heap plaudits upon them for displaying some semblance of advancement, but the grim truth lying beneath a veneer of wide boulevards and neon lights reveals that we are living in nothing more than concrete villages. Indeed, economic and human development in Pakistan has been stymied by years of mismanagement but urban areas, more notably our mega-cities, have been ravaged.

Following the military led coup in 1999, the Musharraf regime unveiled an ambitious, if typically errant, attempt at decentralization of power through local governments. Devoid of public consultation except a few seminars in luxury hotels, the National Reconstruction Bureau designed a system of governance which drove urban areas into a quagmire of legislative loopholes and gaps, overlaps and structural inefficiencies. While proponents of the local government system advocated its comprehensive nature, it fast became obvious that the good ship Pakistan never landed on the shores of local government. Rather, the local governments landed on the people of Pakistan as an unknown and under-capacitated system of oversight and taught us that even the right thing done wrongly can undermine the sustainability of our economy.

For where the common man was already buckling under the strain of big government, the introduction of the local government system left no less than five layers of governance and administration for one to contend with. In descending order these were the Federal Government, Provincial Government, District or City District Government, Town or Tehsil Municipal Administration, and Union Administration. As in the classic case of there being too many chiefs and not enough indians, one wonders why it was that instead of directly empowering the grassroots economy of existing Union Councils, novelties such as the Town Municipal Administrations and District Governments sprung up with similar functions mandated across each tier.

In spite of this layer cake being considered indigestible by many political quarters, some of the responsibility for improving life in our cities lies not only on the local government system itself, but on the provincial and federal governments which generally neglected to maintain unity of command in urban areas after the system was implemented. Almost ten years down the line we find our cities divided into fiefdoms, distinguishable only by the presence of either affluence or poverty, and lacking any integration with a holistic economic development agenda which promotes social justice. In view of this, any decision amongst incumbent administrations to dilute authority or further encumber socio-economic processes is made at its own peril.

As long as our macro-economic framework faces political uncertainty, refugee influx and the impacts of natural or man-made disasters, it makes good economic sense to learn from our costly experiments and identify reform measures that put us on a path of course correction. Now that the gauntlet has been thrown with the passage of the eighteenth constitutional amendment, responsibility for a number of matters will lie solely on provincial governments, all of which are facing budgetary constraints. Unless drastic measures are taken to cut costs and make public administration of cities more efficient, one can expect that the axe will eventually fall on the common man to sustain an expensive government. The challenge before our decision makers therefore is to reengineer our urban areas to follow an economic development strategy which makes them more resilient to upheavals, and harnesses their true potential to become hubs for learning, culture, commerce and industry.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.